Open minds and dazzling possibilities: An excerpt from The Spark

In this book excerpt, Kristine Barnett introduces her son Jacob, a 15-year-old boy with an IQ higher than Einstein’s


Maclean’s political editor Paul Wells’ profile of a 15-year-old autistic boy who’s now one of the world’s most promising physicists has been a top story on our site for days. Jacob Barnett eventually landed at Waterloo’s Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics. His mother, Kristine, chronicled her son’s incredible life in a recently published book, The Spark: A Mother’s Story of Nurturing Genius.

On Sept. 10, Wells will chat with both Barnetts. Join us at 1 p.m., when Wells will discuss other Perimeter personalities, debates in modern physics, and the future of Kitchener-Waterloo. Then, at 1:30, join the Barnetts in conversation.

In the meantime, here is an excerpt from The Spark: 

Photographs by Jessica Darmanin

I am sitting at the back of a university physics class while the students cluster in small groups around the whiteboards lining the lecture hall, ready to tackle the day’s equation.

Work proceeds in fits and starts. There’s a great deal of erasing. As the teams of students begin to bicker, I catch a glimpse of my nine-year-old son at the front of the room, chatting easily with the professor. The frustration level in the room mounts. Finally, my son pulls a chair over to a whiteboard and steps up on it. Even so, he must stand on his tiptoes, straining his arm as high as it can go.

This is his first encounter with the equation, just as it is for all the other students in the class, but he doesn’t pause to deliberate. Instead, the numbers flow fast and fluently from his pen. Before long, everyone in the room is watching. The students from the other teams stop their work to stare at this little kid in the backward baseball cap. My son doesn’t notice the gaping onlookers because he’s happily engrossed by the numbers and symbols flying onto the board. They mount up at impossible speed: five lines, then 10, then 15, spilling over into the whiteboard space of the group next to his.

Soon he’s talking to the others on his team, pointing and explaining and asking leading questions, the way a teacher would. A serious woman with a French braid breaks away from her own group, drawing closer to listen. She’s joined by a stoop-shouldered young man, who nods his head vigorously as comprehension dawns.

In a matter of minutes, all of the students at the front of the auditorium have gathered around my little boy. When he points out a trick he’s found in the equation, he bounces on the balls of his feet in delight. A bearded student calls out a question. I glance over at the professor, who is leaning against the wall with a smile on his face.

Now that they get the problem, the college students rejoin their own groups, and their markers begin to move as well, but the tension in their body language is unmistakable: No one in the room loves the equation like my son.

Class is dismissed, and the auditorium empties. My son packs up his markers, talking animatedly to a fellow classmate about a new NBA video game they both want. As they come up the stairs toward me, the professor approaches and extends his hand.

“Mrs. Barnett, I’ve been wanting to tell you how much I enjoy having Jake in my class. He’s bringing out the best in the other students, to be sure; they’re not used to being lapped like this. To be honest, I’m not completely confident I’ll be able to keep up with him myself!”

I laugh along with him.

“Oh, gosh,” I say. “You’ve just pretty much described the story of my life.”

My name is Kristine Barnett, and my son Jake is considered to be a prodigy in math and science. He began taking college-level courses in math, astronomy and physics at age eight and was accepted to university at nine. Not long after, he began work on an original theory in the field of relativity. The equations were so long they spilled over from his gigantic whiteboard onto the windows of our home. Uncertain how to help, I asked Jake if there was someone he might show his work to, and a renowned physicist I contacted on Jake’s behalf generously agreed to review an early iteration. He confirmed that Jake was indeed working on an original theory and also said that if the theory held, it would put him in line for a Nobel prize.

That summer, at age 12, Jake was hired as a paid researcher in physics at the university. It was his first summer job. By the third week, he had solved an open problem in lattice theory, work that was later published in a top-tier journal.

A few months earlier, in the spring of that year, a tiny article had appeared in a small local newspaper about a small charity my husband, Michael, and I had founded. Unexpectedly, that piece led to a story about Jake in a larger newspaper. The next thing we knew, camera crews were camped out on our lawn. Our phone rang off the hook with film people, talk shows, national news outlets, talent agencies, publishers, elite universities—the reporters and producers all desperate to interview Jake.

I was confused. I can honestly say that at the time, Michael and I had no idea why so many people were interested in our son. Sure, we knew Jake was smart. We understood that his abilities in math and science were advanced and that it wasn’t “normal” for him to be in college. But Michael and I were squarely focused on celebrating different victories: the fact that Jake had a decent batting average, a close group of friends his own age who liked to play Halo: Reach and watch movies together in our basement, and (although he’ll kill me for mentioning it) his first girlfriend.

These typical things in Jake’s life are, to us, the most extraordinary. So when the media descended, we were utterly baffled. It wasn’t until we had talked with some of those reporters and read or heard the stories they wrote that we began to understand our disconnect. The truth is, it took a glaring spotlight to show Michael and me that the story line of our lives with our son had changed.

You see, what those reporters didn’t understand was that Jake’s improbable mind is all the more remarkable for the fact that it was almost lost. When the media showed up on our lawn, we were still living inside the diagnosis of autism Jake had received when he was two. We had helplessly looked on as our vibrant, precocious baby boy gradually stopped talking, disappearing before our eyes into a world of his own. His prognosis quickly went from gloomy to downright grim. When he was three, the goal the experts set for him was the hope that he’d be able to tie his own shoes at 16.

This is the story of how we got from there to here, the story of a mother’s journey with her remarkable son. But for me, more than anything, it is about the power of hope and the dazzling possibilities that can occur when we keep our minds open and learn how to tap the true potential that lies within every child.

Excerpted from The Spark: A Mother’s Story of Nurturing Genius. Copyright © 2013 Kristine Barnett. Published by Random House Canada, which is a division of Random House of Canada Limited. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.


Open minds and dazzling possibilities: An excerpt from The Spark

  1. This comment was deleted.

    • This comment was deleted.

      • Just factual.

      • Don’t feed the trolls, JanBC

        • Country boys prefer faith to facts.

          • You have neither.

          • Religion, no. Facts yes.

          • Come come Emily. You have religion.
            You worship yourself.

  2. This comment was deleted.

    • Solving physics equations by age 9 is anything but routine. Becoming “one of the world’s most promising physicists” by age 15 is even less routine.

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        • This comment was deleted.

        • Oh, and for future reference, ‘aspie’ is short for Asperger’s, which is the mild end of the autism spectrum. There’s no mention of this boy as having Asperger’s. Your confusion is quite common – so much so that they no longer use Asperger’s to describe high functioning autism. They simply refer to an approximate region of the spectrum.

          • Yes, most people know that. Aspies are quite common, but they are not geniuses.

          • So you dispute the claim that this boy is a genius?

          • To be a genius you have to do/create something new and original.

          • You are confusing opinion with fact. In your opinion, perhaps, you must create something new and original. However, the definition is extraordinary intelligence and/or creativity. His level of intelligence qualifies as genius.

          • Immanuel Kant said ‘originality was the essential character of genius. This genius is a talent for producing ideas which can be described as non-imitative.’

            He discusses it in the Critique of Judgement.

            There is a whole philosophy of genius…it’s not a new event in the world

          • Which you got from here –
            You leave out that there is no definitive scientific definition and offer up the musing of one philosopher as proof Jacob is not a genius.

          • Well since you read the Wiki on it, you will have noticed there is more than one philosopher ‘musing’. They come up with what is the only working definition we have.

            We have people who are autistic, asperger, gifted, prodigy, savant and so on, but that doesn’t make them ‘genius’.

            We shouldn’t dump expectations on someone they may not be able to fill.

          • Because when we want to explain brain function we turn to philosophers? What happened to your supposed love of science?
            Just admit you’ve got a mad on for Wells and this why you are pooh poohing this whole book. If you were concerned about the child you would not have made that original crack.

          • Science can dissect the brain….philosophers who are often geniuses themselves….can recognize others.

            Wells? Is that what you’re on about?? Sorry, no.

            In all the time I’ve been on here I’ve gravitated to education/knowledge/students/university…..and yes, bright people …as topics.

            I’m concerned that mom’s book and the upcoming movie are more likely to do Jacob harm than good….but I’m afraid any ‘cracks’ were in your head. It was a simple observation.

            You have skin in this game, do you? I’m not sure why you’d be so het up otherwise.

          • Maybe like many of us she finds the derogatory use of “aspie” offensive. It’s amazing how someone who sees slights of a racist or sexist nature where none exist could fail to understand how her belittling of someone with a mental challenge is just plain nasty.

          • Aspies call themselves that. There is nothing derogatory about it.

          • Well how about that! I’ve only ever seen it used in a derogatory sense until now, but from a quick Google it appears you are right on this one. I apologise.

          • Don’t apologize, Keith. “Aspie” is a term used with loving connotations by people who care for the person who has the diagnosis of Aspergers (now Austism). Emily has no empathy or love for this boy or the challenges he and his parents have faced. She is a mean girl and both Paul Wells and Colby Cash have had to take her down a peg.

          • LOL , you wish.

          • Lightening will probably now strike me dead, but for once I agree with you. As Emily always says LOL

          • Well, seeing how you’ve been pulling a “Paul Wells” on Emily, I can assure you that lightening won’t strike you dead.

          • That’s one of the differences between me & her – I can admit a mistake.

            BTW – did you know she thinks we are the same person? Or at least that’s what she said on the first-year students thread!

          • That truly is funny given that politically we hardly ever agree.

          • There is the way you used it.

          • Only between your own ears.On a topic you know nothing about.

          • People in the disabled community joke about being ‘gimps’ but that doesn’t mean anybody else should use the term. And you didn’t use it in an affectionate way, it was totally meant to be demeaning.

          • Enough with the fiction.

          • Keith, a fellow came on here yesterday and told me he believes this thing is a bot.
            He’s caught it contradicting itself in the same dialogue series.

          • I don’t know if you saw the original post – – it was – from memory – ‘He’s an aspie with an obsession, BUT AT LEAST HE’S MAKING MONEY. II found it so condescending, especially from someone who claims to be so educated and future oriented. God, 20 years ago we were still calling kids like him retarded. Parents of autistic children have been fighting for government funding for years – governments(of all stripes) have even challenged them in court. So if Jacob’s example can help us deal with ‘different’ children we should be celebrating it, not making nasty cracks like Emily did. So, if, as she claims, I have skin in the game, that is it.

          • In other words you are clueless.

          • Clueless – could you be more specific?

          • Of course she can’t

          • So you’ve gravitated have you?
            That’s fascinating. Why would a moron take on a project like that?

          • Repeat that last sentence to yourself, please. It’s gibberish.

          • It doesn’t MAKE them genius – but it doesn’t preclude them from being such, either. BTW – prodigy: synonym for genius.

          • People are born that way….nothing ‘makes’ them into a genius.

            And no a prodigy is not the same as a genius. Prodigyhood ends at 18.

            Since you have no stake in this, I have no idea why you’re carrying on an argument when you know nothing about it.

          • Where do you get this business that “prodigyhood” (your word), ends at 18.
            Is it buried in one of those wacky pieces of legislation that Pierre Scumball Trudeau rammed down our throats?.

          • http://thesaurus.com/browse/genius – prodigy is on the list of synonyms. It is generally associated with youth; that makes them young geniuses. At least is all dictionaries other than the Dictionary of Emily.

            And why do you insist his autism precludes the possibility of genius? That’s like assuming Hawking’s ALS precludes him.

          • A prodigy is not a genius. Just someone under 18 who is advanced for hir age.

            I said nothing about autism precluding the possibilty of genius.

            You going to waste a lot of time on this are you?

          • Ah! Once again Emily knows better than dictionaries and thesauruses. Psst… you are the only one on here that speaks Emily. The rest of us speak English, not some made-up, alternate-universe version of same.

            “He’s an aspie with an obsession.”

            “We have people who are autistic, asperger, gifted, prodigy, savant and so on, but that doesn’t make them ‘genius’.”

            YOU seem obsessed with insisting he is NOT a genius, despite others declaring him so, simply because he doesn’t meet your Dictionary of Emily definition of the word. The implication behind your statements is that his autism precludes genius.

            But what else to expect? The very idea that someone may be smarter than you terrifies you.

          • Bram…..you have admitted you don’t know anyone who’s autistic..or aspie…or a savant, a prodigy or a genius.

            In other words, not even you know what you’re arguing about.

          • Where did I state that? (It happens to be true, but I don’t recall saying it. We thought for a while my nephew was mildly autistic; also, my GF has two sweet kids with learning disabilities – so I do have problems with people who make moronic assumptions about the abilities of others)

          • No, you just have problems.

          • Hi, I’m Peter Easton’s sister. You don’t know him.

            He’s older than me but I always call him my little brother because he’s little in every possible way, if you know what I mean.

            He roams the internet insulting people just as you do. It’s disgusting.

          • I doubt your brother does that any more than I do.

          • So when a prodigy turns 19 – what is he called? Hey, you’re claiming the expertise here, answer the question.

          • Jacob is 15 – and what is your stake in this, if you think that is what allows anyone to discuss this? This subject is a long way from global whatever it is your doing between Macleans posts.

          • You’re full of it Emily, it was Joe Kant, the plumber, who said that. They’re not even related.

            Immanuel Kant said, “If you’re so stupid you can’t memorize seven books, you’ll never be a genius.”

            Your mother should have taken time to spoon you up some truth serum.

          • Rules you out then, doesn’t it?

          • Let’s see if I have this straight: You are saying that his autism absolutely rules out the possibility that this boy is a genius? Would you also dispute the possibility of someone having severe dyslexia being a genius? Or someone left-handed?

            Just because his brain works differently than the norm does not preclude the possibility of genius. In fact, a genius’ brain does not by definition, work the same as the norm – that’s what makes them such a distinct and small group.

          • No, you don’t have it ‘straight’. You never do.

            He does math. So far he hasn’t done anything original.

          • From the article:

            ” He confirmed that Jake was indeed working on an original theory and also said that if the theory held, it would put him in line for a Nobel prize.”
            Exactly how high do you set the bar for genius in your world? The rest of the world sets it substantially lower than possible Nobel contention…

          • So far he hasn’t done anything original.

          • “Working on an original theory” sounds pretty creative to me; the fact that he thinks at that level is astounding. That goes beyond the usual “rain man” prodigy you seem intent on pigeonholing him under.
            Who set you up as the arbiter of originality, anyway? And how high do you set the bar? Nobody comes up with something 100% original – they build on the knowledge of those who went before.
            Once again, Emily makes up her own definition. Try a dictionary from time to time; people will understand you better if you use the same definitions for common words as the rest of society.

          • Lot’s of things sound good to you. Mostly your own voice.

          • This from the woman who comments on absolutely everything…

          • Actually I don’t. I suppose I should as lots of writers pass through here without a word ever being said to them. It must be disheartening.
            However I just don’t have the time.

          • Never stopped you from trying. You’ve made 20 or so posts trying to defend your callous dismissal of a brilliant autistic boy. And you’re still at it. You’ve made a fool of yourself. Give it up.

          • Defence has never been needed.

            He’s an aspie with an obsession….and YOU have no skin in this game either. You’re just chattering to chatter.

          • She obviously thrives on it. It’s the same drill every day. Say something obnoxious and spend hours getting to tell people they’re stupid, bigoted, racist, sexist etc. She Charlie Sheen ‘wins’ everytime.

          • It’s no surprise to learn that you’ve been mumbling away to yourself as you typed out and posted all this bilge.

            But I can promise you Emily you’re the only one hearing voices

            By the way you’ve posted 55 more pieces of garbage since Walmart announced you’d hit a record breaking 7,800

          • I didn’t think Wal-Mart even allowed their greeters to be on their phones all the time like this. She must be pretty sneaky.

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